Steely Dan’s Aja was one of my favorite albums of 1977. So was Elvis Costello My Aim Is True, though I didn’t find out about it until 1979, when I heard WNEW-FM playing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — from that year’s Armed Forces — and realized I had to know more about this guy.
They seemed to inhabit different worlds then: Steely Dan, the inscrutable, chart-topping, cool and composed studio perfectionists, Costello, the manic, angry punk-influenced upstart. Steely Dan was on top of the world; Costello, just getting started. Steely Dan had retired from touring; Costello was establishing himself as one of the fieriest concert performers in rock.
Now, nearly four decades later, they don’t seem that different after all. They both have large, impressive catalogs. They’re both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’re both bastions of sophistication in the pop landscape, and both committed to touring on a more-or-less regular basis.
And now they’re on the road together, on a tour titled Rockabye Gollie Angel, and coming to the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on Aug. 1 and the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden on Aug. 3.
So, I started wondering, there must be at least a few times over the course of the years when their paths have crossed. And yes, I was able to come up with a few things. But it was a struggle to even make this list of five. These guys have really lived in different universes. Until now.
1. In a 2008 episode of his television show “Spectacle” that featured Jakob Dylan, Tennessee Thomas (daughter of Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas), singer-actress Zooey Deschanel and actressed-turned-indie-rock-star Jenny Lewis, Costello tipped his hat to his guests’ backgrounds by opening with a scorching version of Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids.” Watch the performance below.
2. In a 2000 article for Vanity Fair, Costello named his Top 500 albums of all time. Steely Dan’s second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was among them, with “Show Biz Kids” singled out as a favorite track.
3. Do you want to hear Costello’s great keyboard player, Steve Nieve, play Steely Dan’s 1974 hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”? Of course you do. Go to Soundcloud.com/steve-nieve-official and you can do so.
4. There aren’t really as many degrees of separation between ’70s Elvis Costello and ’70s Steely Dan as you might think. John McFee, who played guitar on My Aim Is True, replaced original Steely Dan member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in The Doobie Brothers in 1979; as a Doobie, he performed with occasional Steely Dan vocalist and keyboardist Michael McDonald.
5. Bruce Thomas, Costello’s longtime bass player, was almost prevented from trying out for the job by his love of Steely Dan. (Costello was apparently not a big fan in the ’70s.) Here’s how Thomas told the story in a 2012 interview with forbassplayersonly.com:
“I answered the proverbial ad in Melody Maker, the musician’s paper at the time, which had all the Situations Vacant or ‘Wanted’ pages where bands would recruit. The ads would be something like: ‘Mindbeast seeks heavy metal guitarist. Must have own transport and long hair. No timewasters.’
“In my case, the ad I replied to was for a bass player for a ‘rocking pop combo.’ I rang the number on the ad and a girl answered, ‘Stiff Records.’ As she was taking my details, I heard a voice in the background, later confirmed to be EC, saying, ‘Ask him who he likes.’
” ‘What bands do you like?’ the girl said.
‘” The Rumour and Steely Dan,’ I replied.< ” ‘Get rid of him,’ the voice said.
” ‘No, I think you should give him a chance,’ said the girl.
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